Since 2006, I have contracted with Seattle Public Schools Service Learning program. My activities have included project planning, program design and delivery, evaluation, training, technical assistance, speaking, and professional development services. I’ve provided large and small group facilitation; communication and public relations; project management; and other consulting services, too.
Some of the schools I’ve partnered with in Seattle have included:
West Seattle High
Rainier Beach High
Aki Kurose Middle
Following are descriptions of some related activities.
“Volunteerism isn’t right! Matter of fact, it is not good at all.”
With that, the preacher ended his speech, complete with “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” coming from the crowd gathered. I was a 19-year-old at a neighborhood meeting in the mid-sized Midwestern city where I grew up, and my ears were burning. Throughout the meeting I heard several perspectives from my friends and neighbors on the volunteers and missionaries who had come to rehabilitate houses, tutor kids and work at the food bank in my neighborhood.
This preacher was alluding to a belief that I hear repeated in many of the discussions I’ve been in where community volunteerism was addressed: that similar to other “isms” in our society, volunteerism has become an addiction that serves to reinforce the social, attitudinal and structural barriers facing “others” in American society – children and youth, homeless, LGBTQ, differently-abled, people of color. These barriers limit the recipients of said volunteerism in their ability to experience authentic self-driven change in the situations they occupy.
However, my experience has also shown me that there is hope for volunteerism. For the last three years The Freechild Project has operated under the motto of “By, not to; With, not for.” This motto is strengthened by our mission to build active democracy by engaging young people in social change, particularly those who have been historically denied participation.
When the purpose of service and volunteerism is to strengthen democratic participation and community empowerment, volunteerism can be wholly beneficial. As Ivan Illich once observed about international volunteerism, “[Volunteers] frequently wind up alleviating the damage done by money and weapons…” When conducted as part of a deliberately revelatory cycle, volunteerism can become a process for empowerment, as long as it is not at the expense of others’ self-determination.
After growing up occasionally homeless, then in a low-income community where my family and friends were the subject of much volunteerism, I served three terms in the AmeriCorps national service program. I developed a tutoring and mentoring program for Kurdish and Iraqi kids in the Midwest, ran a ropes challenge course for low-income youth in the Northwest, and assisted in the leadership of a service learning program in the Southwest. I know service work, and I promoted volunteerism to all kinds of people. However, my most riveting experience came when I worked for a larger national foundation where I was responsible for teaching young people about volunteering. I discovered that the language of “service” covered an attitude that was pious at best; at worst, it perpetuated a sense of noblesse oblige, the royalty taking pity on the peasants and giving them alms.
My own concern was coupled with others who I met in this volunteering. After several years, I worked with a group of people from across the United States to develop a teaching practice called Activist Learning. After exploring the benefits and faults of service learning, we defined Activist Learning as community learning characterized by people taking action to realize a society based on just relationships by seeking to change unequal power structures throughout our communities. However, after promoting Activist Learning for several years I discovered that there is another need that extends beyond schools and into communities. I see that need as a re-visioning of experience of volunteers.
Below is a model through which volunteerism can start to become emancipatory for ALL of its participants, including the volunteer and the community, the “giver” and the “receiver.” The Freechild Project believes that this model represents the most radical and powerful possibilities for people’s participation throughout our society. One of the goals of The Freechild Project is to realize the full participation of all people throughout society as equal members in decision-making and action. We have developed this model in order to represent our vision of democratic, community-oriented participation for ALL people. Individuals and organizations can use this model to start thinking about how volunteers of all ages can be integrated as empowered, purposeful participants throughout society.
I have re-envisioned sociologist Roger Hart’s Ladder of Children’s Participation for this model. According to Hart, he developed the Ladder to introduce community workers to the practice of children’s participation, and its importance for developing democracy and sustainable communities. The model presented here is done in the same context, except for the purpose of sharing the goal with a broader audience. I believe that the importance of developing democracy and sustainable communities must be spread to all people, including the homeless, the impoverished, and all those regarded as “others” in American society.
Ladder of Volunteer Participation
Following is the Ladder of Volunteer Participation, including a brief explanation and examination. In this Ladder, Community Members are “insiders” from any community of people who have been historically been “others” in the United States. Volunteers are “outsiders” who have traditionally come into communities to provide “service.” They may include non-profit staff, AmeriCorps Members, teachers and others.
8) Equitable Partnerships with volunteers happen when projects or programs are initiated by community members and decision-making is shared among community members and volunteers. These projects empower community members while at the same time enabling them to access and learn from the experience volunteers.
7) Self-Led Partnerships with volunteers happen awhen community members initiate and direct a project or program, and volunteers are involved in supportive roles only.
6) Equal Partnerships with community members happens when projects or programs are initiated by volunteers but the decision-making is shared 50/50 with community members
5) Community Consultation happens when community members give advice on projects or programs designed and run by volunteers. The community members are informed about how their input will be used and the outcomes of the decisions made by volunteers.
4) Community Assignments happen when someone else creates projects and community members are assigned specific roles and told about how and why they are being involved.
3) Tokenism happens when community members appear to be given a voice, but in fact have little or no choice about what they do or how they participate.
2) Decoration happens community members are used to help or “bolster” a cause in a relatively indirect way, although volunteer do not pretend that the cause is inspired by community members.
1) Manipulation happens when volunteers use community members to support causes and pretend that the causes are inspired by community members.
This Ladder isn’t a static tool meant to describe whole programs or the entire experience of individuals. Instead, it is meant to help individuals identify where they are at any given point of their volunteering, and where they can aspire to. People can occupy many spots on the Ladder at the same time; organizations can engage different volunteers differently in order to meet their needs. The Ladder isn’t static.
While many community organizations seek to “fix” or “heal” the wounds in our society, it has been often noted that rarely are these works more than band-aids. The after school basketball program I ran for young people in my neighborhood when I was 21 did help keep kids off the streets. However, it didn’t help their parents get better jobs so they didn’t have to work two shifts; it didn’t help their grandparents strengthen their parenting skills so they didn’t feel so frustrated; ultimately, it didn’t help the young people learn more skills or become more involved in their community so they felt a sense of hope and purpose.
Volunteerism oftentimes serves to perpetuate the worst of these characterizations, often with negative effects on both the volunteers and the community members themselves. Instead of engaging community members on the top rungs of the Ladder, at most some organizations relegate them to the bottom rungs. How many homeless shelters do you know of that are operated by homeless people? How many afterschool programs for young people do you know of that are operated by young people? In some programs, when the recipients of rehabilitated homes help carry out the framing, plumbing and painting of their homes, are they actually learning about places the water lines and helping to choose the colors, or are they just finishing the nailing?
The challenge of reaching higher rungs on the Ladder of Community Participation is one that faces all individuals and organizations committed to validating and uplifting the skills and abilities of the people who are served, whether they are young people, people of color, or others. However, the reality is that all organizations cannot all be at the top rungs. Sadly enough, when reliant on dysfunctional trends to justify their existence, some groups actually work to keep communities from being on the Ladder at all. That is reality.
When considering community members’ empowerment in Brazil, Paulo Freire once wrote “those invaded became convinced of their intrinsic inferiority.” The implication that volunteerism is an engine for a degrading, delineating social design is not new, but the challenge that faces us is: to make volunteerism a relevant, purposeful engine for democracy and sustainable communities today, and by doing so, to create a vibrant, purposeful society tomorrow.
In his book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community,” published a year before his death, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about what he called the world house. “This is the great new problem of mankind,” he wrote. “We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together — black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu — a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”
“All inhabitants of the globe are now neighbors,” King continued, predicting a time in which not only African Americans would be fully free, but peoples suffering discrimination everywhere. “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever,” he wrote. “The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself.”
The challenge we face as responsible community workers, educators and other social providers is to build Dr. King’s world house, where he proposed a revolution of values. That is why we must aspire to lift volunteerism towards the poignancy which it could have. That is one where the community and the volunteer work with intention in unity for the common good. That is where I want to live.
To Hell With Good Intentions – A 1968 speech by Ivan Illich focusing on the injustice perpetuated by American volunteers working in Mexico, and when contextualized in the light of modern “service” work, offers a startling analysis of the volunteer movement in America.
Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? – In 1967 Dr. Martin Luther King laid out a clear analysis of the painful divide facing activists and community organizers. The problem is that we’ve fulfilled his worst fears. 1960s Connections he drew between Black Power, affirmative action and American segregation provide a clear glimpse into modern American apartheid; his prescriptions for community building, nonviolence and unity offer a roadmap for a different America.
Mentoring the Mentor – This book is a written conversation between Paulo Freire and a number of promoters, practitioners and detractors who have beef with his analysis. “The fundamental task of the mentor is a liberatory task. It is not to encourage the mentor’s goals and aspirations and dreams to be reproduced in the mentees, the students, but to give rise to the possibility that the students become the owners of their own history. This is how I understand the need that teachers have to transcend their merely instructive task and to assume the ethical posture of a mentor who truly believes in the total autonomy, freedom, and development of those he or she mentors.” (from Chapter Sixteen: “A Response” by Paulo Freire).
In the Service of What? The Politics of Service Learning – In 1994 a pair of university faculty wrote an academic analysis of service learning. They provided a basis for a lot of the modern criticism underway today, and allowed the service learning movement to breathe enough to allow critical thinking within its ranks. While that movement seems to have exhaled lately, Kahn and Westhiemer’s analysis is just as applicable today, and provides a great construct to learn from.
Learning Through Activism – The Freechild Project’s action plan for powerful, purposeful learning through social change. Includes guiding principles and resources for young people, educators and activists.
I don’t think we should be trying to help others until we’ve acknowledged the ways others have helped us.
We should learn how to help ourselves, too, either by helping others or simply focusing on ourselves.
Helping others in order to feel better about ourselves is a trap though.
We have to learn to find happiness in helping others without expecting reward or acknowledgment. Everyone learns that differently: some as missionaries, ascetics, or ministers, while others are artists, teachers, or nonprofit workers.
When we find happiness in helping others without expecting reward or acknowledgment, only then are we truly helping them, and truly benefiting ourselves.
I have learned that in the grand scheme of things, humanity is largely indifferent to our individual, specific existences. I don’t mean that in a demeaning way, but in a realistic way. Where one person dies, a dozen others take their places within moments. Each person is like a finger poking into a sand dune, even the movie stars, movement leaders and presidents.
So if we go around expecting recognition and doing things for others because we’re going to get something out of doing those things, not only are you going to be disappointed, but you’re going to be greedy, indifferent and incapable of actually helping anyone else in any substantive way.
Before helping others, we have to acknowledge how others have helped us, and some of us have to learn to help ourselves. Only then can we actually truly and really do something for someone else. But not until then.
If our goal is to engage young people in social change, there are many ways to do that. This diagram illustrates four distinct ways to engage young people: youth-driven community organizing, systemic youth involvement, situational youth voice, and service learning. It then illustrates the traditional and non-traditional approaches to doing that within these ways, as well as the overlaps that are apparent.
Traditional Approaches to Engage Young People in Social Change
May be exclusively youth-led
May partner with adults
May be led by adults
May include equity
May have explicit learning connections
May include adults
May be focused on sustained change
May have sustained funding
May position youth as “outsiders” versus “insiders”
New Approaches to Engage Young People in Social Change
Infuse youth as full members
Recognize mutual investment by youth and adults
Focus on sustained change
Make explicit learning goals for youth and adults
Focus on systemic and cultural transformation
Requires equity between youth and adults.
In my own restlessness, I find myself craving something different these days.
I’m increasingly dissatisfied with isolated experiences of “youth-led” activity that is seeded and driven by adults. I have come to see that the majority of this work is largely disingenuous and ultimately incapacitating for the young people who participate in these activities. I say that very cautiously, as I personally know and am professionally aware of the immediate feelings of empowerment that are inherent in this type of action.
Today, I’m coming to understand that we need approaches to this work that more deeply situate young people as full members of currently existent society. That way they can be partners in what already exists and transform situations in deeply sustainable, deeply transformative ways.This has to happen by working with the institutions we already have in place. It has to happen with the attitudes we already have at work. This is where my writing on meaningful student involvement comes from: Students working in the places they already occupy with people who are already committed to working with them. There are attitudes, cultures, structures, and connections to transform, but those are sustained changes that won’t go away with passing generations.
This article is meant to illustrate what the difference I see looks like visually. Respond and let me know what you think about a new approach to youth action – I’d love to hear what you think!
Ideally, youth engagement happens throughout communities and across society. Youth programs and youth councils are good; but engaging youth at home and throughout regular community places is great. However, the space is not as important as the characteristics of the community.
Working with more than 40 youth engagement practitioners throughout King County for our Youth Engagement Practitioners Cadre over the last two years, I have collected a lot of best practices and tips. Here are some some of the characteristics of successful youth engagement they identified.
Characteristics of Successful Youth Engagement
Programs are Focused.
Instead of meandering through purposeless activities and focus-less personal activities, every activity is designed to be a concise, deliberative engagement of multiple intelligences, broad perspectives, and varying experiences. Engaging young people remains the central action throughout the program, and improving the community is the focus of every activity.
Environments are Supportive.
Youth and adults alike are committed to working together without fear of retribution or alienation. All youth are partners with each other and adults in the program, and work together for the common cause of improving communities through youth engagement.
Activities are Engaging.
The experiences, knowledge, ideas, and opinions of youth are validated and substantiated with meaningful learning experiences that infuse community interest with a new capacity to visualize, analyze, create, and engage youth as partners.
Thinking is Critical.
As co-learners within a community of learners, youth provide vital insight in the community improvement process for their peers and adult allies. These democratic interactions are actively encouraged and supported by all members.
Processes are Transparent.
There should be no mysteries about what the purpose of the youth engagement program is, or what the outcomes of the activities will be. The program offers numerous ways to make goals, outcomes, and activities fully understandable to youth.
Decisions are Decentralized.
Youth engagement activities emphasize the common experience of all participants—youth and adults—as co-learners, empowering youth to engage fully throughout the learning process. Decisions affecting every member are made by members of the program—youth and adults—and everyone is held equally accountable and celebrated equally.
Nonprofits searching for purpose after the ship went down… The ship’s going down and all the rats are swimming for their lives!
A long time ago, back in the 1990s, the federal government decided to build the nonprofit volunteerism sector in the United States. At first this brought menial efforts from fledgling organizations that actually became powerhouses in social change across America.
Then it brought out the rats.
They flocked onto the big ship of national service that launched from the docks of the White House. This colossal beast carried AmeriCorps and Learn and Serve America into existence, as well as shoring up VISTA and the Senior Corps. Millions of people became volunteers, serving their communities in all kinds of ways.
On the Learn and Serve deck of the ship, schools actually got money to support classroom opportunities that infused substantive learning with real community needs. This had the ability to actually, tangibly demonstrate the value of schools to communities, and the abilities of young people to really, truly transform the places where they lived in positive, powerful ways. Astronaut John Glenn was on board, taking this cruise to the highest of heights!
Unfortunately, the ship got hit, and now its going down.
Last year, the US Congress defunded Learn and Serve America, almost wholly ending the federal government’s support for the service learning movement in one fell swoop. With a massive hole in the stern of the ship, volunteerism started taking on water and going under. That doesn’t mean that people aren’t volunteering- it just means they’re not taking cues from the federal government the ways they used to. Like through learning. Rather than using community service to learn from, the feds are concentrating their money on making students learn through tests–but that’s another post for a different day.
This post is to show that as every rat organization is grabbing for anything to float on so they don’t drown because the government took their money away. Suddenly, everyone wants to own volunteering. A lot of terms seem to be up for grabs too, as youth service, service learning, civic education, community youth development, and so many other phrases are being grabbed at.
The reality is that nobody owns volunteering. Today, as I spoke with the spectacular Charles Orgbon of Greening Forward, I thought to reassure him of that. I have seen the big rats be very defensive of their pieces of wood when the ship was intact, and now that they’re sinking, many are bumping around, tussling, and loosing their footing to other orgs (i.e. Hands On and POLF). As a young org leader, I think Charles’ good work might be targeted by some of these rat organizations to mooch off of or otherwise profiteer from. I’ve seen it too many times.
So, all of you fighters, advocates, and heroes out there doing the good work, please keep doing it no matter what they say. Nobody can take what is ours together, so long as we stand together. Charles, this includes you! Nobody owns volunteering, and that starts with your good work. Keep it up!
Our session, called “Linkage Power! Classroom Based and Out-of-School Time Service-Learning Projects”, will be held at the convention center in room 502 on Friday, March 15th from 9am to 10:30.
The official description says, “The linkage between formal and informal in-school and out-of-school time learning opportunities is an effective model to validate high quality service-learning practice impacting student achievement in urban and highly diverse school settings. The Seattle Youth Engagement Zone project results support the high value of this linkage. This session will engage participants in examining their approaches to building relevance for students of color by linking formal and informal learning activities. Participants will collect linkage and partnership tips and best practices.”
I’ll be leading sections of the presentation about the King County Youth Engagement Practitioners Cadre, and general icebreakers. Should be awesome!
People want to accumulate engagement and experiences of engagement like they collect stuff, thinking all the time that the more they gather, do, think, talk about, wonder, and dream, the more engaged they’ll become. The Heartspace Teachings show that engagement is happening here, right now, in our day-to-day movements and ways of being. All of it, sacred and profane. There’s nothing more to do. Striving as we do though, people always want something more. That’s not wrong, but it’s not true to engagement. We are already engaged right now. If we want to become more so, then so be it. But we’re all already engaged right now. As I often do, I look to history to teach me about these things.
Monday is the official MLK Day holiday here in the US, and millions of people across the country we be doing community volunteering work with King’s adage, “Everyone can be great because everyone can serve” hanging in their imaginations. They believe that by doing community service work, they are becoming more engaged in their communities, and that is true.
What isn’t true is that community service is the only way to become connected to the people around us. Dr. King was well aware of this, as he acknowledged it too. He wrote, “In a real sense, all life in interrelated… We are inevitably our brother’s keepers because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
This interrelatedness means that anything you do with another person, place, thing, or idea, that leads to a sustainable connection is something that engages you to others. You might be volunteering or giving money to strangers, and those things are engaging you in your community. But King’s philosophy of interdependence shows how we might also become engaged by helping a neighbor hang Christmas lights, babysitting a baby niece, or helping your disabled friend go grocery shopping.
So don’t worry about it! Just keep doing the things that you’re doing right now, unless you want to do something else. Then do that. But either way, don’t rely on any prescriptions, pathways, or perspectives that would force you to follow a particular avenue towards becoming engaged. Heartspace always shows the way.
From the late 90s through the 2000s, I participated in a number of service learning programs across the U.S. Some were hyper-local, such as the program in Taos, New Mexico, focused on building cultural and social connections between the Taos Pueblo and youth in the neighboring town. I worked at the state level in Washington, helping administer a Learn and Serve America grant that went to dozens of subgrantees across the state. I also worked nationally with the Points of Light Foundation and the Corporation for National Service promoting service learning.
Along the way I saw patterns of educational abuse that were extremely disconcerting for me. In the worst cases, young people were being taught the missionary perspectives of the European conquistadors who believed they knew best for those they were to have been serving. Other times, students were extremely tokenized, made to seem as if their presence was all that was needed, while their actions, opinions, ideas, and knowledge was trivial or meaningless.
Activist Learning is an intentional strategy for creating knowledge characterized by taking action to realize just relationships that transform unequal power structures in our personal, social, political, environmental, spiritual, and economic lives.
I was clearly reacting to the pressures of poorly implemented service learning. However, I thought it was essential to problematize the position I saw many service learning programs occupying, and provide an alternative conceptualization.
Today I know that there are many, many high quality service learning programs across the U.S. and around the world. There are a number of criteria and assessments available to young people and adults in service learning programs, and a plethora of good examples of service learning challenging the missionary perspective I was railing against.
The problem today presents itself to me in a deeper way. Instead of poor programs, I see now that there are poor perspectives, activities perpetuated by well-meaning but ill-prepared practitioners who want to do the right thing, but are wholly incapable of that because of the assumptions and ideas they hold. It is these people who I want to target with the considerations of Activist Learning, if for no other reason than to challenge their thinking.
What do you think? What are the next steps that are necessary to develop service learning, and does a consideration need to be made for a new pedogological norm focused on “Activist Learning”?